Historical Fiction Drama

Victoria sat as Queen on the throne. A pound sterling brought home as much food or clothing as £122 can today. Yet still the winter of 1860 was a hard one for some. It was the 31st of December.

“Papa!” Emeralda cried, skipping barefoot from stone to stone. Peter watched her from the kitchen doorway. She danced up to the farmhouse and flung her arms around him. Peter wiped his floured hands on his shirt and squeezed the little girl. She let out a short chuckle of glee and looked up into the old man’s face. She suddenly stopped short. “What’s wrong, Papa?”

“Nothing, my little gemstone.”

Emeralda hesitated for a moment in indecision. Finally, the authority of her grandfather’s words won over. She laughed again, and ran past him into the house.

Peter stared out into the garden. His deep green eyes were filled with a mixture of sadness, tenderness and pride. From somewhere deep down, the urge to laugh bubbled up inside him. But tears rose up and overwhelmed every impulse. He dried them with the back of his hand.

Slowly and deliberately, he dusted his hands again and shuffled across the flagstones. His dough lay shapeless on the kitchen table. He glanced at it sadly, then slumped into a chair beside it. He pulled an envelope towards him, and opened it with gnarled fingers.

The letter inside was soft and wrinkled from many readings, and the right edge showed a light stain. Peter sighed and folded it into its place again. He remained there for a long while, running his hands through his mop of silvered curls.

His bowed back sank further and further until his head rested on the table. He sat up sharply. “No, there’s no time for sleeping now.”

He stood up and gazed around the little kitchen. The evening sun flooded it with light the colour of cider. He thought of so many evenings before, with his dear wife thumping a ball of dough so deftly onto the table; his son-in-law knocking the soil from his boots at the door; his beautiful daughter sitting in the corner near the bread-oven, fondling the baby.

It was empty now, but every object brought back memories of the people that had touched it: the now-yellowed curtains fluttering in the wind, the bread-oven, the stool that still stood beside it. Emeralda was sitting on it now. She held her rag-doll in front of her, deep in conversation. As he watched her, his thoughts ran like a vision. He saw a woman in a stiff black dress tugging at his gemstone. When she didn’t move, the woman struck her sharply with a stick and quoted the Proverbs at her.

He stood helpless with fear dancing in his eyes. Finally he shook himself violently, scraping the chair against the flagstones. “No!” he yelled. All was silent and still and tranquil again. The kitchen was filled with shadows.

Emeralda darted towards Peter and tugged on his big hand. “What’s wrong, Papa?”

Peter’s eyes stayed fixed on the dark wood of the table. “I thought you were gone.”

“But I’m here, Papa.”

“Yes, I’ve still got you, my gemstone. I love you.”

Peter picked up the little girl and placed her softly on the kitchen table. He gathered his dough and flung it at the table. But instead of a neat ball, it stuck to his hands and collapsed into a flat, horrid mass on the floured wood. He stuck his hands into the dough and rested on them, the tears welling up faster than he could call them back. Several tripped over his lashes and plopped onto the dough.

A cuckoo in another room burst out and chirrupped six times. Peter pulled his hands free and smeared them on his coarse shirt. He stood still. Only his eyebrows moved slightly as he wrestled in his mind.

“Emmy,” he said eventually, “can you be a big girl?”

“Of course, Papa. I’m five.”

“I know you can do it. Papa is going away for a little bit. He’s got to sell his little pocket watch. Will you be a good little gemstone until he comes back?”

Emeralda drew out her face as long as she could and stared into Peter’s with a serious expression. She said nothing, nodding slowly and knowingly.

Peter pressed her softly against his bony chest. Then he turned away, gathering strength in himself. He knew what he had to do, and he had to leave her for just a little while to do it.


He turned back.

“Why must you sell your pretty watch?”

“Because I’ve still got my precious little gemstone.”

Peter shuffled outside quickly and slammed the door, lest he should be tempted not to do the task he knew he must.

He stopped and turned aside to a little garden, now bleak and dry. Three headstones stood in a row, coldly erect, on each one a handful of withered, frozen blossoms. He opened the gate and pressed inside. He sat down between them and hung his head.

The fearful lady in black flashed in front of him. He wrenched his mind away.


Peter stood in front of the little counter in the pawnbroker’s shop. He shook at the though of handing over the little gold pocket-watch, no bigger than a shilling. Resolutely, he set it on the counter. The pawnbroker’s bald, fat face stared down at him disapprovingly. He handed Peter a half crown.

“Is that all?” Peter stammered.

“That’s more than it’s worth.”

“I need a hundred pounds.”

“I’m sorry; there’s not even a quid in that old thing.”

Peter’s cheeks flushed as anger surged up through him. His body stood motionless; only his lips tremored weakly and his eyes flitted about. They glanced at the pocket-watch one last time, then seemed to sink deeper into his face. The flashing anger disappeared and left the cold, still sadness. He folded his hand over the half crown and wandered out into the snow.


A scream woke Peter with a start. “I’ve been dreaming!” he said. He stumbled to his feet, bolted the gate behind him, and hobbled to the kitchen.

The door stood wide open. He stopped just inside, panting. All was quiet. The curtains were fluttering around him and his heart pounded in his chest. “My gemstone!” he said. “I’m too late.”

In his mind he was already running down the lane after the lady in black who was carrying his little one away.

“Papa!” the cry came desperately from the pantry.

The pantry door stood ajar. He shuffled, half-running, towards it. He cried hot tears of relief when he saw his gemstone, scrambling up the empty shelves. He hurried with outstretched arms to rescue her, but his knee bumped into something soft. Only then did he see the furry animal looking eagerly up at Emeralda.

He pulled Emeralda easily over his shoulder and set her on the kitchen table. Then he returned to the pantry and lifted the calf under his arm. He carried it into the kitchen and set it down on his lap. Suddenly, something awoke deep down inside him that he hadn’t felt for years. It came with a wash of memories. The corners of his mouth creased, just slightly, and he bent down and kissed the animal on top of its head.

“Where did you come from, little one?”

Emeralda, already recovered from her fright, watched from the table. “He’s sweet! Can I call him Ruby?”

“He can be Ruby if you want, my little gemstone. He looks hungry.”

Emeralda slid from the table and trotted to the pantry. She brought a glass of milk and thumped it on the table in front of Peter.

The calf grabbed Peter’s thumb and sucked on it desperately. He opened his mouth and laughed – a laugh that was rusty and thin, but grew clearer with each second. “He won’t drink from a glass, gemstone. Look how he’s sucking on my fingers.”

He pulled his thumb free and dipped it in the glass. He offered it to the hungry calf, who grabbed it and sucked every drop of milk from it. Peter took his hand away and dipped his thumb again.

Neither of them had noticed the darkness creeping into the little room. It was almost black now, and the cuckoo clock struck eight.

At the chime of the clock, the old man set the calf on the floor and stood up. His hands stayed frozen in his wild hair and his eyes clouded. He saw the lady in black leaning menacingly over his little gemstone as she sat in a white frock and bonnet, in a row of little girls in white frocks and bonnets.

“You can’t take the child!” he said.

But the voice he heard was not his own. It was as though from a dream or a distant memory. It was the voice of a young woman that he hadn’t heard for sixty years, ever since he – like Emeralda – used to play carefree on the kitchen floor. He hadn’t understood the words when he heard them. Now they came back to him as part of his long nightmare.

“I must go now. Let me take the clock as well. I can come back for the table.”

The calf butted into his leg with its stumps of horns. “Papa, he’s still hungry.”

“You’re right, my little gemstone.”

Peter lit a candle, and took the calf onto his lap again. He took the glass and held it out to the calf, tilting it slowly. It slurped eagerly, dribbling as much onto the floor as it managed to drink.

Soon it closed its eyes and lay down. Peter felt his lap growing warm and wet. He dropped the calf onto the floor. “Come, my little gemstone,” he said. “We must get a bed for Ruby.”

The old man and Emeralda went out hand in hand and returned with two armloads of straw. They laid it in the corner of the kitchen, beside the bread-oven. They laid the calf in it, and it promptly dropped off to sleep again.

“Papa, Ruby’s finished her tea. What are we going to have for tea?”

“I nearly forgot. We must finish the bread.”

The fire in the bread-oven was almost dead. Peter blew the glowing embers while Emeralda passed him twigs. When the fire was blazing again, he left it heat and returned to kneading the dough. It was still too soft and sticky, but he somehow managed to form it into a rough loaf and set it on the paddle.

He raked the fire out of the oven and placed the bread in to bake. He checked his little watch. The hand slowly approached eleven.

After half an hour, he brought the bread and laid it on the table. When it had cooled for a few minutes, he broke it in two – a larger piece for himself and a smaller one for Emeralda.

“There will be no milk tonight, Papa. Ruby drank it all! I do wish for some butter.”

“Don’t worry, my little gemstone. We will be fine for tonight.”

“We can have play butter.”

For the second time, Peter laughed. It toppled out more easily than before.

Just then, a sharp rap on the door lifted the old man from hit seat. A smartly-dressed man ran into the room, breathing hard. The first thing he noticed was the calf. He stood watching it snoring as he caught his breath. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he said.

He turned to Peter, “Do you realize what you’ve done?”

“No, sir. I’m terribly sorry.”

“No, no. That’s not what I mean!” He held up a notice in black ink: Anybody able to give word of a Red Devon calf, three months old, to Mr. P. Alderman will receive the sum of £500 in cash.

Peter opened his mouth and shut it silently.

Before he could say anything more, three man strode into the room. The foremost of the three addressed Peter. “You know me as Mr. Dobson, your landlord. For what I must do, I have brought with me Constable Williams…”

“Good evening.”

“…and Mr. Stephens here, from the workhouse.”

Mr. Stephens only nodded grimly.

Emeralda cried and ran from the kitchen. Peter drew himself up as straight as his back would allow. His eyes blazed; there was no fear left in them. They were cold and still, and he moved not even a finger. He spoke softly and slowly, but with authority. “Mr. Dobson, nobody is going to the workhouse.”

“Since when did you have the right to tell me any such thing?”

Mr. Alderman silently opened his waist pouch and drew out a fist-full of bills. “This is for you, Mr. Dobson.”

The landlord snatched the money, turned red and stormed from the room. Mr. Stephens shot Peter a sour glance and stepped outside.

“Evening,” the constable said, and followed the others.

“Now Peter,” Mr. Alderman said, “that calf is more valuable to me than all of that money and more. Thank you.”

He counted out £400 and handed it to Peter. He walked to the corner where the calf was still sound asleep.

Peter stared at the money in his open hand for a long while. “Mr.

Alderman, how much do you want for that calf?”

“What do you mean? It’s not for sale.”

“No. That calf is worth a lot of money to you, but to me it’s so much more. That calf taught me to laugh again.”

Mr. Alderman rubbed his chin in thought. “Peter, that calf is worth more to me than you could ever give. But really, I need someone who can look after it for me for a few months. Doesn’t it look happy?”

“Yes, Mr. Alderman. It’s happy.”

“Well then, goodnight to you. And a happy new year!”

January 01, 2021 19:15

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